So, you have been invited to join a family for a Shabbat meal. What do you need to know?
Photo: Duane Stork Photography
Shabbat is a day of rest that lasts from sundown on Friday evening through nightfall on Saturday night. In addition to a plethora of things that observant Jews will famously not do on Shabbat (such as driving, working, or turning on a light switch), there are a host of things we do do in order to “make the Shabbat a delight” (in the words of Isaiah 58:13).
A big part of the “delight” of Shabbat is the enjoyment of three Shabbat meals, mainly the first two—Friday night dinner and Shabbat lunch—that are elegantly prepared, preceded by the sipping of ceremonial kiddush wine and the breaking of traditional challah bread, and lingered over with songs, inspiring thoughts and camaraderie. (The third meal, eaten late on Shabbat afternoon, is normally lighter.)
If you are joining as a guest, the first thing for you to know is that guests are considered an integral part of any Shabbat meal. Your hosts are very happy to have you—their meal just would not feel right otherwise!
When to Come
Confirm with your hosts what time they would like you to show up, and make sure you have good directions, as they will not be answering their phones starting at sundown on Friday night. The timeframe given may be loose—“sometime between 12 and 1”—and so you can be flexible in your arrival.
If you are a woman attending a Friday night meal, your hostess may invite you to come early, before Shabbat starts at sundown, so that you can join her for candle-lighting. If you do this, the time spent between candle-lighting and eating will likely be filled with a combination of chatting, preparing for the meal, or just simply relaxing on the couch. Your help setting up or reading to restive children will likely be appreciated.
Note: Shabbat starts on Friday evening with sunset, so the exact time for each week’s Friday night meal may vary based on geography or time of year.
Both the Friday night meal and the Shabbat day meal are preceded by services in the synagogue. Even if you don’t generally attend synagogue, or don’t attend the same one as your hosts, you can consider joining them this week, and then simply go home with them afterwards.
What to Bring
Though not necessary, a small hostess gift is appropriate. If the gift is a food item, such as wine or chocolate, make sure that it is kosher (and if it is wine, that you see the word mevushal on the label). The world of kosher certification can be complicated. When in doubt, flowers always make a good gift (except for in Israel, where agricultural rituals make that complicated as well).
Avoid giving a dairy dessert, even a kosher one, as most Shabbat meals feature chicken or meat, and we do not serve dairy in the same meal as chicken or meat.
If you do choose to give a gift, bring it to your hosts’ home before Shabbat starts. This may seem strange, but is actually quite normal in observant circles, since Torah does not allow us to carry or conduct transactions—including the giving or receiving of gifts—on Shabbat. Please don’t bring your gift when you come for the meal, as your hosts will not be able to receive it then. (If it feels very awkward to you to skip a gift altogether, you can always follow up with a thank-you note and a gift after Shabbat has ended . . . but rest assured that your hosts are absolutely not expecting you to do so.)
What to Wear
Clothing on Shabbat is a notch more formal and festive than on a weekday, so if you think “dinner party,” you will likely strike the right note. Men will fit right in with a pair of slacks and a button-down shirt (coat and tie optional) and kippah, and women with a modest dress or a modest top and skirt.
What to Expect?
After everyone has arrived and indulged in a few minutes of chit-chat, family and friends will move to the table and find their seats.
At this point on a Friday night, your host (often accompanied by others) will sing two hymns:
- The “Shalom Aleichem” hymn, with which we welcome the angels who visit every home at the start of Shabbat, request their blessing and bid them farewell.
- The song of “Eishet Chayil,” which is a tribute to the Jewish woman, written by King Solomon, extolling her for the wisdom and hard work with which she makes her home the lovely and nurturing place it is.
Typically everyone stands for the singing of these hymns, but if it is difficult for you for any reason, you may certainly sit down.
At the Shabbat day meal, we begin immediately with kiddush.
Your host will recite kiddush holding a cup of wine, and everyone will receive a few sips of wine to drink. The recitation of this blessing over a cup of wine is a way of fulfilling the mitzvah of sanctifying the day of rest (the word kiddush translates as “sanctification”).
On Friday night all typically stand for the recitation of kiddush, while on Shabbat day some people sit. Take your cues from those around you.
Immediately following kiddush, everyone will leave their chairs and go to the sink for the ritual hand-washing for bread. If you are not familiar with this procedure, your hosts will be happy to guide you through it and help you recite the blessing.
After washing hands, we don’t speak until after we’ve eaten some challah, so just return to your chair and wait quietly. Hand motions and facial expressions are often used for necessary communication at this point.
When everyone is seated again, your host will recite the blessing over bread and then distribute challah, first dipping each piece in salt. After you’ve eaten a bite, feel free to talk again.
The traditional Friday night Shabbat meal features a fish course (with gefilte fish as an Eastern European classic, often nowadays accompanied by salads inspired by Israeli cuisine), followed by a soup course (most classic is chicken soup), and then a meat or chicken course.
Shabbat day generally features a fish course and then a meat course containing a hot stew called tcholent. Since it is forbidden to cook food on Shabbat, the tcholent has been slowly cooking since Friday afternoon before sundown, either on the stovetop or in a crockpot. (Tcholent is the Eastern European term; in Sephardic parlance, the equivalent, often spicier, dish is known as chameen.)
These multi-course menus are traditional but not mandatory, and it is increasingly common to serve a one-course Shabbat meal, but be prepared . . . what seems like an entire meal may be just the first course.
All that, of course, followed by dessert!
Don’t worry, you are not obligated to eat or even taste everything.
What to Do
Enjoy the food and the company! In addition to table talk, we make sure to include words of Torah at our Shabbat tables, and at some point someone will probably take the floor for a few minutes to present a Torah thought. If your hosts have children, they may share their knowledge of the weekly Torah portion and enjoy some positive attention. There will also likely be some singing, of traditional Shabbat hymns as well as other Jewish songs of a joyful or spiritual nature.
You can feel comfortable discussing all the usual topics that might be discussed a dinner party—politics, recent experiences, the weather . . . and don’t be afraid to ask questions. If anything seems mystifying or unclear to you, don’t be shy. Your hosts or fellow guests will be happy to explain.
If you lend a hand with clearing plates or carrying serving dishes, it will likely be appreciated.
What Not to Do
When you come, don’t ring the doorbell. Knock instead.
Don’t take pictures.
Don’t use your phone.
When using the bathroom, avail yourself of the tissues or pre-torn toilet paper, rather than tearing toilet paper.
Important: Please don’t turn off any lights, as there will be no Shabbat-permissible way to turn them back on. (If you have already mistakenly turned off the light in the bathroom, you can at least know that you are not the first one to have made this mistake . . . even those who have observed Shabbat for many years may unthinkingly do this.)
Don’t worry, there is no problem at all with flushing the toilet.
Grace After Meals
As the meal is winding down, someone will suggest bentching. This Yiddish word means “blessing,” and is a reference to the Grace After Meals. Small booklets will be brought to the table containing the text of the Grace After Meals. There are sure to be some booklets with an English translation, so you can read it comfortably yourself.
Did you find this informative? This is part of a series of “What
to Expect” articles that offer visitors a basic understanding
of Jewish rituals and traditions.